U.S. Flood Insurance Endangers Puget Sound Salmon, Orcas

SEATTLE, Washington, September 29, 2008 (ENS) – The National Flood Insurance Program is pushing orcas and several runs of salmon towards extinction, in violation of the Endangered Species Act, according to a regulatory finding issued today by scientists at the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The National Flood Insurance Program is implemented by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA. Without making the changes called for by the Fisheries Service, cities and counties around the Puget Sound could lose their eligibility for federal flood insurance. A total of 252 Washington jurisdictions currently participate in the flood insurance program, including 39 counties, over 200 cities and towns, and two tribal reservations.

The federal fisheries agency issued the finding, known as a biological opinion, as required by a 2004 federal court decision.

In the case National Wildlife Federation v. National Marine Fisheries Service, Judge Thomas Zilly of the federal district court in Seattle found that FEMA’s flood insurance program encouraged floodplain development and harmed salmon already listed as threatened with extinction under the Endangered Species Act.

Puget Sound salmon (Photo courtesy
Puget Sound Partnership)

He ordered FEMA to consult with the Marine Fisheries Service to ensure compliance with the Act, and the document issued today is the result of that consultation.

“We have always known that building homes and businesses in the floodplain was dangerous and economically senseless,” said John Kostyack, excecutive director of wildlife conservation and global warming at the National Wildlife Federation.

“With global warming causing sea level rise and intensified storms, the risks of such development are now higher than ever. With this decision, we now have a tool for reducing risks to both wildlife and people,” said Kostyack.

The biological opinion documents the ways in which FEMA’s flood program encourages development within the floodplain area.

Because most private insurers refuse to insure floodplain homes, FEMA’s insurance program allows development to occur where it otherwise would not.

In addition, FEMA’s minimum development standards for floodplain construction currently fail to include environmental standards.

Floodwaters damaged farms, roads, businesses
and homes affecting thousands of residents
in Lewis County Washington. December
2007 (Photo by Leif Skoogfors
courtesy FEMA)

“Even where flood risk is well established (for example, in Lewis County on the Chehalis River), the National Flood Insurance Program’s current implementation does not significantly restrict floodplain development or encourage the preservation of floodplain natural and beneficial values,” the biological opinion states.

It points out that the City of Chehalis has nine percent of its Urban Growth Area in mapped floodplain, and Centralia has 21 percent of its Urban Growth Area in mapped floodplain.

“Development within the floodplain results in stream channelization, habitat instability, vegetation removal, and point and nonpoint source pollution (NMFS 1996) all of which contribute to degraded salmon habitat,” according to the biological opinion.

By insuring development in floodplain areas, the National Marine Fisheries Service determined that the program was jeopardizing the survival of Puget Sound chinook, Puget Sound steelhead, and Hood Canal summer-run chum salmon, and adversely modifying their designated critical habitat in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

It also found that by reducing the prey base for Southern Resident orcas, also called killer whales, it jeopardized them as well.

The biological openion warns that implementation of the FEMA program in Puget Sound could result in a 30 percent reduction of chinook salmon in Puget Sound – the orcas’ favored food source – in the years ahead.

Puget Sound was once inhabited by at least 37 populations of Chinook salmon, but today only 22 remain. The remaining Chinook salmon are at only 10 percent of their historic numbers, with some down lower than one percent of their historic numbers, according to the Puget Sound Partnership, a coalition of citizens, governments, tribes, scientists and businesses working together to restore and protect the sound.

As required by the Endangered Species Act, the National Marine Fisheries Service set forth an alternative approach for FEMA that would not result in jeopardy to salmon and orcas.

FEMA and Washington State workers check
the bank erosion from flooding that is
endangering this house. January 2008.
(Photo by Marvin Nauman courtesy

The alternative includes new requirements that development within the floodplain and riparian buffer area be either prohibited or that its impacts to the stream be completely mitigated.

Any development in these sensitive areas should be required to use “low impact development.” This type of development specifies protection of native vegetation, pervious concretes that allow rain to flow through to the ground, narrow footprints, and rain gardens to absorb stormwater runoff.

Last month, the Washington Pollution Control Hearings Board declared that low impact development was both more effective than traditional stormwater controls like detention ponds, and cheaper to implement.

“Americans are getting tired of paying to rebuild flooded homes in places that should be left alone,” said Jan Hasselman, an attorney with the public interest law firm Earthjustice who argued the 2004 lawsuit against FEMA.

“The good news today is the federal agency scientists have stepped in on behalf of both American taxpayers and its wildlife and said no to building in flood-prone areas,” Hasselman said. “We think this is just plain old common sense.”

Click here [www.earthjustice.org] to read the biological opinion, formally known as the “Endangered Species Act – Section 7 Consultation Final Biological Opinion And Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act Essential Fish Habitat Consultation Implementation of the National Flood Insurance Program in the State of Washington Phase One Document – Puget Sound Region.”

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